Europe and Moscow engaged in Ukrainian tug-of-war

  • The leaders of the 28 member states of the European Union are meeting for a summit in Vilnius attended by six former constituent republics of the USSR.
  • The “partnership” project is all at sea since the U-turn performed by Ukraine, placed under intense pressure by Russia.
  • Kiev is no longer interested in signing in Vilnius, but has not turned its back on Europe once and for all.


It’s a thorny tale of chocolate, gas, power and principles, one which had, until recently, given off a rather insipid technocratic air. But over the past few days, it has become nothing less than explosive.


The Vilnius summit, which opens on Thursday evening in the Lithuanian capital, could almost have passed by unnoticed, but the recent power struggle between the European Union and Russia over Ukraine ensured that it would garner significant media coverage. Considerable uncertainty now surrounds the outcome of the meeting between European leaders and their counterparts in six “eastern” neighboring countries. By midday on Friday, it will be all over but the shouting.


“Everyone is well aware of the geographical, strategic and political importance of extending the borders of the EU by 2,000 kilometers eastward,” a minister representing one of the European project’s founding nations stated anonymously a few days ago. He was in favor of welcoming new members, but “not at any price.”


In truth, talk of borders is an exaggeration. EU “enlargement”, i.e. new countries joining the union, is not on the agenda at the Vilnius summit. A “large majority” of the 28 heads of state and government will make their way Thursday to Lithuania, the country that holds – until the end of the year – the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Once there, they will attempt to save what is left of the “Eastern Partnership” with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Officially launched in 2009 at the behest of former “eastern” states which had become members of the EU, as well as the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, the initiative’s goal is to strengthen – by varying degrees depending on the nation – political and commercial ties, all the while promoting western values of democracy and human rights. It is a project which has achieved little up to now. Today, it is no longer presented as a forerunner to a hypothetical separate EU membership, but is instead concerned with special relationships and areas of influence and power.


Vilnius was supposed to constitute a decisive step in this process. The main course on the summit menu was the signing of a “new generation” association agreement with Ukraine, including an ambitious free-trade component, “which is not compatible with membership of a customs union with another country” – Russia, in other words. Everything appeared to be in place, except for a final legislative reform and, most importantly, the acquittal – temporarily, at least – of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and arch-rival of President Viktor Yanukovych. Tymoshenko is under detention, and it is against this symbolic “political justice” that the EU has repeatedly railed, turning it into an increasingly difficult condition for authorities in Kiev to adhere to.


The initialing stage – the intermediary phase before a document is officially signed – of a similar agreement with Georgia and Moldova had also been reached. As far as Armenia is concerned, the die was already cast at the end of September, when the country rejected a free-trade arrangement with the EU in favor of a rival project that Moscow has been attempting to finalize with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan.


The likely upshot of all this is that only Georgia and Moldova will remain at the initialing stage come Friday. That is, at least, the hope of the EU’s member states. Ukraine performed a sensational about-face last week under the threat of reprisals and blackmail from its Russian neighbor. Despite the efforts of some Europeans, the Union remained intransigent and decided not to sacrifice its “values” to “win back” Ukraine. Barring a (further) huge surprise, Ukraine’s chances of signing look dead in the water, or at best postponed to a later date. Kiev wants to first renegotiate with Moscow before re-engaging in talks with Europe and obtaining better conditions”.


Europe has insisted that its offer remains on the table. Kiev, where a series of pro-European demonstrations have taken place, was, even up to Wednesday, sending the message that the negotiations with the EU were still ongoing. Moreover, Ukraine will be represented in Vilnius by its president. “We’ll be able to hear from Yanukovych himself. Everyone is interested to find out what’s on his mind and what his expectations are,” explained a high-placed European official. In the meantime, Moscow has been batting its eyelashes at the Ukrainians, lifting a ruinous embargo on Roshen, a Ukrainian brand of chocolate which is extremely popular in Russia, and dangling the carrot of large reductions on natural gas prices.


“Without Ukraine, the core of the partnership falls apart,” says Steven Blockmans, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies. “We’re disappointed, yes, but nothing is irreversible,” is the line being adopted by the entourage of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. They now hope that a joint declaration can be adopted at the Vilnius summit “which will explain what we’re doing together and what we want to do together.” Europe will have to convince its distrustful and divided partners that everyone can emerge victorious from a European-style modernization of the countries in question. And it will have to reassure Russia and a rejuvenated Putin, whose impression of being surrounded is not to be taken lightly.


“Those things are existential for us, but also for the EU,” underlines the Georgian ambassador to the EU, Natalie Sabanadze. Can Europe still “act like a global player, exerting its normative power in a positive manner?” But Vilnius, admits Sabanadze, is not a “one-off event. It’s a process.”



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